That pricey grass-fed burger you had for lunch may have come from a cow that ate more than just grass.
At it stands now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will consider any labeling claim relating to what percentage of a cow's diet was grass, as long as the company can back it up with documentation. Some say that's misleading and only animals fed grass from beginning to end should be labeled grass-fed.
And there lies the rub: As consumers increasingly spend more money on meat they consider healthier and more sustainable, there's no one agreed-upon definition for grass-fed beef. Many in the organic and natural meat industry are calling for a tougher measure after a voluntary federal standard was dropped earlier this year. Meanwhile, sales of steaks and burgers processed from grass-fed cows continue to surge, creating business opportunities throughout the supply chain.
"It's all about the taste. … We're trying to compete for mainstream consumers delivering a great-tasting product that happens to be healthy," said Lenny Lebovich, CEO of PRE Brands, a Chicago-based grass-fed beef company that launched last year. "For grass-fed (beef) to have the success it wants to have, there needs to be a pure standard."
In January, the Agriculture Marketing Service — one arm of the Agriculture Department — withdrew the grass-fed standard that had been in place for about 10 years, saying it lacked the statutory authority to enforce it. The previous voluntary standard defined grass-fed as meaning the cow ate only grass and foraged plants from weaning to slaughter.
USDA officials have said that dropping the standard will have little impact, but many in the grass-fed beef business disagree and contend the standard was important in providing a minimum threshold by which a company could declare its products grass-fed.
Last month, several industry trade groups signed a letter urging the Food Safety Inspection Service — another arm of the USDA — to adopt and use the rescinded standard when approving labeling for grass-fed beef products.
As it is now, the Food Safety Inspection Service allows and approves labels for varying degrees of grass-fed beef as long as a company can support its claim. For example, a company might make the claim that its beef is 50 percent grass-fed but supplemented with grain feeding.
"As with anything that becomes more than just a food trend, people see money to be made and they want to slap a label on it," said Marilyn Noble, spokeswoman for the American Grassfed Association, one of the organizations that signed the letter urging the inspection service to reinstate the standard. "We think it's important there is a standard."
The distinction is important to companies like PRE Brands, which sells its products in more than 300 stores, mostly in the Midwest, and plans to triple its reach in the coming year. Sales are expected to hit "north of $10 million" this year as the company rapidly grows, Lebovich said.
PRE Brands' beef comes from New Zealand cattle fed only grass from weaning to slaughter, Lebovich said, and is processed at a plant in Chicago. The lack of a federal standard can create confusion among consumers about what they're buying, and that's bad for business, he said.
Sales of refrigerated and frozen grass-fed beef at natural, specialty gourmet and conventional retailers — excluding Whole Foods Market — reached $111.8 million in the 12-month period ending Feb. 21, according to data from SPINS, a Chicago-based market research firm that tracks organic and natural food sales.
That's almost double the $56.2 million in sales in the same period two years ago and represents a 32.5 percent increase from the $84.4 million last year. While much smaller, sales of beef jerky and meat snacks marketed as grass-fed are also growing fast, according to the data.
"Basically, it comes down to consumer demand for transparency," said Kim Kawa, natural products specialist for SPINS. "Antibiotic- and hormone-free were the big natural standards for beef, but as consumers demand more transparency, new labeling follows."
It's unclear what, if any, changes the USDA will implement going forward.
"We have received the groups' letter and will take their recommendations into consideration," USDA spokeswoman Catherine Cochran said in a statement. "In the meantime, we continue to review companies' claims and supporting evidence closely to ensure consumers are presented with accurate and meaningful information about the products they are buying."
In the absence of such a standard, retailers have to work harder to discern what exactly they're selling, said Tony Busalacchi, vice president of meat and seafood for Roundy's stores.
"There are hundreds of (grass-fed beef suppliers) knocking on our door, but who really believes in what they're doing and who's following the rules?" Busalacchi said.
On average, grass-fed beef costs $4 to $5 more per pound than conventionally grown beef, Busalacchi said. But customers, and particularly millennials, are "buying this stuff like there's no tomorrow," he said, largely because it's considered to be healthier than beef from grain-fed cows.
An often-cited study by researchers at California State University in Chico in 2010 found that grass-fed beef has higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, lower levels of dietary cholesterol, and more vitamins and antioxidants.
Of course, beef isn't broccoli.
For some consumers, they have heard enough to make the extra cost of grass-fed beef worthwhile.
"It has more flavor because of the grass. And it's better for you," said Stoney Fritz, 40, of San Jose, Calif., walking out of a downtown Chicago Whole Foods Market. "You can tell just by looking at it."